Recently I was watching this video from Overly Sarcastic Productions:
In general, I love this video channel. It’s a great tool for writers and storytellers who would to dive a little deeper into elements of storytelling and literary analysis – all in the guise of pop culture commentary. They’re great and I recommend checking them out.
That said, there was one thing I took umbrage with during the above video, namely this line: “And Luke actually has it worse! Apparently Mr. Paragon hero savior of the whole dang galaxy, noted for his tendency to never give up on family members even if they’re super evil, made a cursory attempt to revive the Jedi Order and then when his nephew turned evil and killed everybody, he [Luke] gave up forever and went off to a distant planet to sulk for the rest of his life.”
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack there. But my first takeaway was the simple: “That’s not what happened. Because it’s not. It’s so fundamentally not and it’s a lazy error, like the author of the video read the cliff-notes of The Last Jedi instead of watching the actual movie. So, let’s do some character analysis and answer the question: Why did Luke Skywalker fall?
Understanding Luke Skywalker
In her video, Red calls Luke Skywalker a paragon. For those who’ve never heard, a paragon is essentially the ultimate good guy. Not only do they want to make the world a better place, but they want to empower others to do so too. They are bound by a strong morale code, which they typically never stray from, and are often seen by other characters as “goody two-shoes” or “boy scouts.” Captain America and Super Man (not the Zack Snyder one) are often held up as examples of paragons.
Oh, and so is Luke Skywalker. Luke, the farm boy from nowhere turned galactic savior, rarely shows weakness or conflict in the original Star Wars trilogy. He’s basically always the good and always doing the right thing. This despite the fact his entire world is upended at the end of Empire Strikes Back with the following revelation:
Everything Luke knew about his father is shattered. His father is not a tragic hero but rather the sinister villain responsible for countless deaths, genocides, and all around horrible things.
Relatively speaking, Luke takes this development in stride. He works tirelessly to reform his father, succeeding at the end of Return of the Jedi. Is Luke himself ever tempted by the dark side? Eh, yeah I guess – for like 30 seconds or so. Never enough that he does anything of real consequence. He’s a good guy, pure and simple, someone who never gives up on family members – just like Red said.
And that’s cool, but what are Luke’s opinions of himself?
From Savior to Destroyer
The Last Jedi is, in many ways, the most meta of Star Wars movies. It has characters actually acknowledge the way the audience sees them – and this is no more prevalent than in Luke Skywalker, who openly talks about his legend during multiple points of the film.
Luke is aware that he was a hero. More than that, it seems to be the fact that most haunts him. Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, a legend.
So, according to Red, it was Kylo Ren’s defection that broke Luke. Now, on the surface, she’s not wrong. That is the event that causes Luke to go off in search of the original Jedi texts, abandoning his active role in shaping the galaxy in favor of a much more passive one. But is it the defection itself that causes this fall?
Well, Luke says so – at least the first time. In his initial story to Rey, Luke states that Ben Solo turned on him when when confronted about his growing use of the dark side. Okay, so in that version – Ben’s fall causes Luke to fall.
But that version is a lie. It’s the certain point of view Luke clings to in front of Rey, in part to preserve his legend status. He knows Rey looks up to him and, while he doesn’t want her to, he can’t bring himself to initially say the full truth of what happened.
Well, here’s the truth:
Luke isn’t haunted by the fact that Kylo fell, it’s that he believes he was the one responsible for it. That horrible future he wanted to stop? He ensured it. Luke wanted to be the legend, he wanted to live up to that image of the perfect savior that the galaxy saw him as.
But Luke Skywalker is not perfect. He made a mistake, a seemingly small one – a moment of doubt – that came at a horrible time. In doing so, the legend of Luke Skywalker crumbled in his eyes. His desire to save everyone and be the hero helped fuel the reflex action that caused him to act rashly.
We’ve seen that level of rash action before. In Return of the Jedi, Luke flies into a rage at Vader upon learning that his deranged father wants to try and turn his sister to the dark side. Fueled by a desire to protect and save, Luke almost falls to the dark side, only turning back at the last possible second (this is the 30-second temptation I spoke of earlier).
Would Luke have killed Ben Solo? No. No I don’t believe he ever seriously considered it. But he had that base emotional reaction – he is human after all. The only difference was that this time it had consequences that he could not undo.
Shattered Confidence and the Power of Failure
Legends cannot fail. Heroes do not falter. These were Luke’s beliefs. He knew the galaxy needed him to be more and he hates the fact that he couldn’t do it. Further, that his weakness so greatly contributed to the rise of the First Order and a return to galactic civil war.
Luke never gave up on other family members – of course not. He is the selfless paragon. But selfless paragons rarely take care of themselves. Even in exile, Luke is still trying to save the galaxy by trying to convince it that it doesn’t need him. That’s pretty much his repeated message to Rey: “You don’t need me. You can figure this out yourself.”
Because of his failure, Luke does not believe he can be a hero to the galaxy anymore. His confidence is gone. His sense of morale code, which is still in place, commands him to atone for his sin and to distance himself before he hurts anyone else.
This belief stays in place until Yoda, who – as Red mentions – has a lot in common with Luke, sets him straight:
It’s okay to fail. You can be a hero and still make mistakes. All that really matters is that you learn from your folly and move on. Luke needed to forgive himself and Yoda helped him to do that. The most selfless man in the galaxy needed a friendly word of advice.
Does Luke Give up on Kylo Ren?
Now this one is weird. On the offset, yes it does appear that Luke doesn’t want to save Kylo Ren. He tells Leia to move on, stating that Ben has fallen too far. Yet Luke himself does not ever try to kill Kylo. He never attacks him during their final fight scene. Moreover, Luke apologizes for failing.
And that’s where Last Jedi leaves things. In Rise of Skywalker, Luke isn’t really a character and Ben is somehow redeemed in a matter of minutes anyway.
In the original plan for the trilogy, things unfolded a little differently. In the aborted Duel of the Fates, Luke was going to “haunt” Kylo Ren. But this haunting essentially amounted toward continued attempts to redeem him. Luke consistently appeals to Ben to turn away from the darkness before it is too late, cautioning him to the fate of the Sith.
So yeah, Luke does not give up on Kylo Ren. Even while telling Rey and Leia to be prepared to do what is necessary, Luke continues trying to redeem his nephew. He never gives up. He is, still, Luke.
So, all of this to say, I think Red’s commentary about how Luke falls is not up to her usual standard. She’s not alone. A lot of people felt betrayed by the disillusioned version of Luke and saw his inaction as a giving up. I never saw it quite so simple, and I think many lines in the film directly support my analysis.
Luke is a person struggling with the weight of being a legend. It is that struggle that drives him away from the unbridled optimism we saw in the original trilogy, but the core character of Luke remains in tact. He always wants to do what’s best for everyone, even if that means removing himself from the story.